Justice  /  Q&A

The Suburban Imperatives of America's War on Drugs

Since the 1950s, disparities along class and racial lines have defined the nation's drug policy.
Nancy Reagan speaking at a podium with a "Just say no" logo.
White House Photographic Office/Wikimedia Commons

His article “Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs” appears in the June 2015 Journal of American History special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State.” The article and the entire issue are freely available to the public.

Could you briefly describe your article??

“Impossible Criminals” demonstrates that since the 1950s, state institutions and American political culture have repeatedly constructed the war on drugs through the framework of suburban crisis and portrayed white middle-class youth who break the law as innocent victims who must be protected from both the illegal drug markets and the punitive policies of the carceral state. The article covers a four-decade period and draws from multiple chapters of my current book project, The Suburban Crisis: Crime, Drugs, and the Lost Innocence of White Middle-Class America. I’m most interested in tracing the process of public policy formation and examining the discretionary and inequitable methods of drug war enforcement along the lines of race, class, and urban/suburban space. “Impossible Criminals” argues that perceived “epidemics” of white middle-class drug use directly shaped the development of the American war on drugs during three stages in particular—the enactment of harsh mandatory-minimum penalties targeting urban and foreign “pushers” alleged to be corrupting the white suburbs in the 1950s, the bipartisan effort to exempt “otherwise law-abiding” middle-class pot smokers from punitive drug enforcement during the Nixon era, and the underappreciated connections between “just say no” public health campaigns in the suburbs and militarized interdiction in urban centers and border regions during the Carter and Reagan presidencies.

The article’s main contribution is to emphasize that the very exemptions created for white middle-class participants in the underground marketplace played crucial roles in the escalation of the war on drugs and the expansion of the carceral state in urban minority areas. The decriminalization of white middle-class youth who consumed illegal drugs and the parallel defense of white residential spaces had direct consequences in the enactment of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, discretionary policing and prosecutorial policies, and the intensification of crime control policies in central cities and border regions.